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Survivor in wrong-way crash recounts bodies, wreckage at scene

One of two survivors of a wrong-way crash that left six dead over the weekend described a movie-like scene on the 60 Freeway: twisted metal, blood and mangled bodies.  

Joel Cortez, 57, of Ontario, who works at a plastic injections molding company in the City of Industry, was driving to his supervisor job early Sunday when, California Highway Patrol officials say, 21-year-old Olivia Culbreath was driving her Chevrolet Camaro the wrong way on the freeway.

Culbreath's Camaro slammed into a Ford Explorer. Cortez's Ford Freestyle crashed into the Explorer. Six people, including Culbreath's sister and friend, died in the crash. 

In his living room, after being released from the hospital, Cortez recalled the moments leading up to the crash.

He said that every morning before leaving home, he says the same prayer: "God, take care of me, take care of my kids, take care of the road and take care of my job." He says the same prayer at the end of work each day before driving home.

"Yesterday, I thanked God that I was OK," he said Monday. "He listened to me."

As he drove west on the 60 Freeway on Sunday, he said, he listened to a Spanish music radio station, which he tends to do when he's driving alone.

It was dark, and there were only a handful of cars on the freeway, he said.

Here is how Cortez recounted the events of early Sunday morning: He followed a red Ford Explorer for about 10 minutes. Suddenly, the Ford was in the air. He swerved to avoid it, but it -- or a part of it -- hit the passenger side of his silver Ford Freestyle and he slammed into the center wall of the freeway. The airbag pushed into him, and when it finally deflated, he saw what he thought was some kind of bag about six feet away from his car. When the sky lightened, he realized it was a man with a mustache. He later learned that the man was dead.

From his car, he said, he heard somebody scream in the darkness, "There are bodies all over!"

"I just saw wheels all over," he said. "I didn't know there was a Camaro under the Explorer." He learned of the Camaro only by watching the news.

Broken auto parts were strewn around the freeway. He stayed in his car. 

He called his children to let them know he was all right, and he waited. A paramedic shined a flashlight in his face and, seeing that he was alive and apparently OK, moved on to help others in worse condition.

After he was taken out of his car on a stretcher, he looked back and saw that half his car was destroyed.

“He remembers seeing part of an engine that hit him, pushed him against a wall, completely crushing both sides of our car,” said Cortez’s daughter, 24-year-old Emma Cortez.

Emma Cortez said her father called her and her brother frantically.

“When I heard the voice mails finally, he sounded scared, shaken up. He was almost crying,” she said. “Obviously on the way over I didn’t know what to expect.”

Culbreath is listed in stable condition and will be arrested on suspicion of DUI causing great bodily injury and manslaughter when she’s released, the California Highway Patrol said. Department of Motor Vehicle records show she was previously convicted of driving under the influence when she was 17.

Maya Culbreath, 24, believed to be the driver's sister, and Kristin Melissa Young, 21, were in the car with Culbreath and died.

Gregorio Mejia-Martinez, 47; Leticia Ibarra, 42; Jessica Jasmine Mejia, 20; and Esther Delgado, whose age was not immediately available, were in the Explorer and were killed. All were members of the same family, authorities said.

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Twitter: @josephserna

joseph.serna@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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